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Immigration, Urbanization, and Identity

The Progressive Era City

Child Labor Conditions: Then and Now

Learning Targets

  • I can make connections to past and present practices by studying photographs.
  • I can identify unhealthy child labor practices in past and modern times.
  • I can use photographs as historical evidence to make connections from the past to the present.


Although child labor laws significantly reduced the number of children working in factory and mining jobs in the United States during the Progressive Era, many parts of the world still engage in unfair child labor practices. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), while the global number of children in child labor has declined by one-third since 2000, there are still an estimated 217 million children around the world who are working under dangerous conditions for very little pay. Asia has the largest number (78 million) of the child population engaged in such practices, followed by more than 13 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean. Agriculture remains by far the most common location for child labor in the twenty-first century, but the problems are also apparent in the service industry and manufacturing.

Poverty is the most common cause of child labor. Another force driving children into dangerous work is the lack of availability and quality of education. In 2008, the ILO found that illiteracy resulting from a child going to work, rather than a quality primary and secondary school, severely limits the child’s ability to get a basic educational grounding, and thus a decent working life. Child laborers are also denied the opportunity to develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. In India, for example, most child labor takes place in agriculture, with other children working as domestic help, or in manufacturing or mining, especially in the Indian diamond industry.

Here in the United States, most child labor infractions occur in agriculture. The current child labor law in the United States was drafted in the 1930, when it was common for children to work on family farms. Today that law is outdated, and does little to protect children working in the fields to harvest the food that we eat. According to Human Rights Watch, child farmworkers as young as 12 years old often work for hire for 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week. Like many of their adult counterparts, these children earn far less than minimum wage, and are exposed to pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and illness related to heat and exposure. These children are also denied the education that could potentially lift them out of poverty.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. Ask students to select two images, and then compare an image taken at the turn of the century to an image taken recently. Either individually or in small groups, ask students to consider the following questions.

Questions to Consider

  • What is similar in the two images? What is different?
  • What emotions do the images bring up when you look at them?
  • Why do you think child labor is still a worldwide problem in the twenty-first century?
  • What suggestions do you have for ending child labor practices in the United States? The world?

Extension Activity

Have students research current child labor law violations in the United States or other countries. Where are child labor practices still taking place? In what industries?

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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Photographs in This Activity

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